Batman: The Animated Series, “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne.”

18May11

Hugo Strange is the best villain the Animated Series only used once. Sewer King, Cannibal Miner, Evil Cultist with a hair piece-they are at best forgettable, at worst remembered for all the wrong reasons. But Hugo Strange is a great character, even if he’s mostly a throw-back to the days when Batman would fight the same kind of enemies Superman did. Of course, it helps that he’s literally a throwback, since he came out of the Batman comics of the 30s and 40s. But really, the show could only use him once. Yes, we have comic book science at play here, but it’s at the low end, and even his one use pushes that envelop a little. So as much as I wish they could have used him again, I know there are good reasons why they didn’t.

The episode opens with a secret meeting on an abandoned bridge, which Batman intends to break up, as he naturally does. But what’s unusual is that one of the parties to this meeting is a judge, who almost dies trying to get a tape back from the gangsters she meets…and when Commissioner Gordon is there to investigate the scene, he staunchly defends her to Batman. After hearing from Gordon about a spa Judge Vargas had just visited, Batman decides to check in as Bruce Wayne, and meet the unusual Dr. Strange. Incidentally, I like that Batman mentions the spa is run by Roland Daggett, as though that’s conclusive proof it’s dirty. Of course, that is proof it’s dirty in this show, but it’s nice that in both identities, Batman doesn’t hide his contempt for Daggett.

What makes Hugo Strange work in the episode is his blend of intelligence and arrogance, with enough of a polite veneer to seem pleasant (if odd) at first. His session with Bruce Wayne is all about exposing trauma under the guise of therapy, while using a machine to read thoughts and record them, while simultaneously lowering the subject’s defenses. Does a machine like that make sense? In theory, though I doubt it would be operated by putting LED lights at the end of metal shafts against the subject’s temples. On the one hand, having this kind of evidence would lead to a natural leap to blackmail. At the same time, if the spa really does relax people through these sessions, as Commissioner Gordon’s earlier dialogue hinted at, it seems weird to threaten that with blackmail. But again, that blend of intellect and arrogance helps make sense of it, as I can easily see Strange going “They’ll never catch me because I’m brilliant!”

If there’s anything to say about this episode, it’s fast paced. As soon as he has taped evidence that Bruce Wayne is Batman, he doesn’t bother with wondering what to do, or blackmailing Batman himself-instead he calls up Batman villains for an auction, though we only see the Joker’s empty desk to show this. By the way, for a show where no one is supposed to die, this episode confirms the Joker has killed at least one person, as he uses someone’s death scream as part of his answering message. Okay, so it doesn’t actually confirm it, but I like to think that it does.

Strange manages to capture Batman while he’s destroying the thought machine, but of course, putting Batman into any kind of captivity is just asking to be punished for your hubris. While Strange is welcoming the Joker, Two Face, and the Penguin (who appears to better effect than in his own introductory episode, but that’s a low bar), Batman escapes, and manages to switch the feed on Strange, displaying a fake tape he created with Hugo gloating about how he’ll fuck with all these psychotic masterminds and steal their money. Naturally, they do not respond well to this, and Hugo Strange tries to run off before they kill him, only to be intercepted at the small airport. Batman catches a ride with Alfred in time to grab a hold of the plane’s landing gear, where he disables its fuel line to bring it down and capture all of them, saving Strange’s life in the process. Now, I know that it probably made more sense to do this than to break into the plane, where they have guns, and fight in a narrow corridor against three of his greatest enemies. But at the same time, it’s not like a plane crash onto hard ground is going to be that safe, so I have to wonder if some small part of Batman was going “If they die in the crash, well, I didn’t intend to kill my greatest enemies, but….” The ending wraps up with some assistance from a disguised Robin, acting as Bruce Wayne to “disprove” Strange’s tape.

The animation for this episode is decent, with a couple of strange artifacts, such as Hugo Strange’s slow motion running. But coming after the last episode, it’s a big step up. Small inconsistencies are definitely preferable to random speed changes. As for the visuals, it’s an interesting change of location from the usual Gotham setting, along with the acknowledgement that this isn’t actually near Gotham city itself, since everyone flies in.

“The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” is a perfectly fine episode of the series. It’s not among the greats, but it acquits itself well, and it’s smart enough not to draw things out. Of course, it’s helped out a lot by bringing in three more villains, with the Joker as the show’s usual ringer, who always brings the quality of an episode up. Which is a bit unfair to the Penguin and Two-Face, who are used well here, but they’re not as easy to write one-liners and gags for, like “Ah, well….Arkham is nice this time of year.” It should definitely be seen once, and holds up well under repeat viewings.

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